Every time I get comfortable with the idea of abolishing the death penalty—an expensive, flawed practice that kills an unknown number of innocent people—along comes someone who commits a crime so heinous and who is so obviously guilty beyond doubt that I realize why capital punishment is unlikely ever to disappear completely.
Over the past few years, examples abound.
On December 14, 2012, 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed his mother, and then used her guns to go on a shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School just outside Newtown, Conn., murdering 20 schoolchildren and six adults. Like so many gun-wielding mass murderers, except those whose weapons jam or those who police or bystanders take down first, Lanza killed himself. Same result as state execution, but hardly justice. Either way, his death cannot bring back those precious young lives. His autopsy found no drugs, alcohol, or brain abnormality.
Some say we want such people to survive so we can study them to find out why they committed their crimes. That makes a certain amount of sense. However, we will probably find that beyond the similarities of their mental disorders and the ways they express them through violence, the triggers (pardon the term) that drive mass murderers over the edge are unique to each individual. In other words, predicting who will express mental illness through a shooting spree may be no more predictable than which cancer patients will respond to treatment versus those who will die.
We have two recent mass shooters as examples of what happens when they survive. On January 8, 2011, Jared Lee Loughner, 22 at the time, used a pistol with a high-capacity magazine to shoot U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in the head as she met with constituents in a Tuscon, Ariz., supermarket parking lot. Besides leaving Giffords permanently disabled, Loughner killed six people and wounded 13 others. Bystanders subdued Loughner when he stopped to reload and held him until police arrested him. Doctors initially diagnosed paranoid schizophrenia, but after months in jail on medication, the court found Loughner competent to stand trial. To avoid the death penalty, he pleaded guilty to 19 counts and was sentenced to life in prison with no chance for parole.
Lawyers for James Holmes, now 25, whom police arrested July 20, 2012, outside the Century Movie Theater in Aurora, Colo., are pursuing an insanity plea while prosecutors seek the death penalty for his alleged shooting spree, which killed a dozen people and injured 70 others. The case, including potential appeals, will likely take years and consume enormous public resources.
Many studies have concluded that the cost to prosecute a death penalty case exceeds the cost to imprison someone for life. While some dispute that conclusion, others ask why taxpayers should be asked to bear the cost of feeding and housing mass murderers for the rest of their lives. Apart from the cost, many see capital punishment as morally unjustifiable, cruel and inhumane.
Eighteen U.S. states (plus the District of Columbia) no longer sanction the death penalty, and 150 of the United Nations’ 193 member states have abolished or no longer practice it. Secretary Ban Ki-moon recently urged all UN members to end capital punishment, saying: “The taking of life is too absolute, too irreversible, for one human being to inflict on another, even when backed by legal process.”
These words were a bit hard to swallow, coming just two months after the April 15, 2013, Boston Marathon bombings. In this case, people who were obviously not mentally ill perpetrated the cold-blooded, “absolute” and “irreversible” maiming and killing of innocent bystanders by using pressure cookers packed with explosives and shrapnel. For zealots who turn peaceful streets into battlefields and civilians into war casualties, pleading to be spared execution seems pathetic. Tamerlan Tsarnaev died in a shootout with police (and was run over by his fleeing brother). Good riddance. Five senseless deaths (if you include his) and 280 people injured. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has pleaded not guilty despite leaving a bloody trail of evidence and offering a confession scrawled in the boat where police captured him. CBS reported: “He wrote the U.S. government was ‘killing our innocent civilians…I don’t like killing innocent people,’ he said, but also wrote: ‘I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished. … We Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all.’” How could he know whether Muslims were standing in the crowd next to the bombs? Odds are that he will face the needle and discover that evil does not go unpunished.
Finally, we have Ariel Castro. Apparently sane, and for no other reason than his own selfish, twisted pleasure, Castro kidnapped and imprisoned three young Cleveland women in his “house of horrors,” one for as long as 11 years.
He repeatedly raped and brutalized them, impregnating one victim who had to deliver the baby without medical care. After impregnating another one, he starved and beat her until she miscarried. Castro pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty and received life in prison without parole plus 1,000 years tacked on for good measure.
In Ariel Castro, we have a despicable character whose sadism, carried out methodically over many years, may convince doubters that a quick, painless death by lethal injection is sometimes too tame a punishment. For now, he is being kept isolated from other prisoners “for his own protection and to maintain order.” Better to place him in a cage with one of his peers, where he could spend the rest of his natural life as some other evil bastard’s “bitch.” That would be punishment that fits the crime.